Return to Work (COVID-19) Amendment Bill 2020

Bills, In Parliament, Speeches


The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:17): Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to amend the Return to Work Act

2014. Read a first time.

Second Reading

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:18): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I rise today to introduce this bill that would extend workers compensation benefits to cover COVID-19. This is a Greens bill being introduced today, and I understand that the Labor Party in the other place has introduced something with a similar framework. I note that this bill was being drafted by the Greens, and announced in other states and jurisdictions, most notably New South Wales, some weeks ago, because we believe that no-one deserves to be left behind during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The legislation that I bring to this council today is based on the work of New South Wales Greens parliamentarians, in particular the Hon. David Shoebridge, and I am proud of my colleague for championing the rights of vulnerable workers in that state and am pleased to follow in his footsteps here today. I also associate myself with the very framework of the Labor Party on this issue in raising an awareness that indeed we have to bring all workers with us in these extraordinary times. We are expecting a lot from those whom we eulogise and create heroes hotels for. Well, along with that, and along with the rhetoric, needs to go real workplace rights, particularly where they fall ill, and the harm that can come to them from those working Roles.

Too many workers do not have the leave entitlements and job security to allow them to economically survive a diagnosis of COVID-19, or even take the time off work while awaiting test results. Front-line staff in people-facing industries are among the most vulnerable, given the required interactions with hundreds of people a day, but they often have very few legal protections. Should one of those interactions make them sick, they need the legislation the Greens are bringing before this place today or the ALP legislation in the other place. It would extend workers compensation coverage to workers who contract or are suspected to have contracted COVID-19.

The Greens want to make sure that workers who are affected by coronavirus are supported through this public health emergency in an appropriate way. This is a simple and straightforward proposal that we hope to see the rest the chamber support. As I said, Labor has announced similar legislation and we would support theirs as well.

The significant benefit of the particular bill we are proposing today is that it can be enacted quickly, as the government does not have to create a new payment scheme and would be dealing with existing frameworks for providing the workers compensation and addressing this particular need for workers to be supported. No worker should suffer financially because they get sick at work or have to isolate because of work. They are providing us with essential services, and we should provide them with the supports they need in that situation.

In question time yesterday the Treasurer noted, with regard to the announcement by the Labor opposition to legislate in this area, that he had been approached by employers fearing this move. He went to great lengths to say that people had been contacting him worried about the implications of affording workers compensation when it came to COVID-19. However, on Twitter last night the Hon. Rob Lucas, the Treasurer, was:

Disappointed that PMal/Labor playing politics and scaring nurses claiming they’re not covered by workers compensation for Covid-19. His claim untrue and they know it. If you contract Covid-19 at work you are covered.

A response to that particular tweet asking why the disease had not been declared under the relevant education award clauses was not responded to. Indeed, it was not made clear how a worker, in particular a nurse, who is already covered and afforded workers compensation in some situations was leading to employers fearing the implications of making that rightful

protection, that rightful entitlement, to those we laud and applaud and provide heroes hotels for, why we were not making it a simpler process, indeed a streamlined and retrofitted process, to address this pandemic.

This bill will apply to full-time, part-time, contract and casual workers. It covers workers who are off work having been diagnosed with COVID-19, workers who are self-isolated and awaiting COVID-19 test results, casual workers who are tested for or diagnosed with COVID-19 within 21 days of last working and, importantly, workers who die from COVID-19. The Greens’ proposed changes will cover all workers in industries where there is a significant face- to-face or public interaction role, such as education, health, hospitality and retail industries.

The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted to us how much we depend on these workers, that they are essential workers, that we are requiring them to go above and beyond in terms of endangering their health to keep our economy and society going. They certainly need the protections we can afford them.

In some cases, of course, it would be difficult or even impossible to determine exactly when and where a worker contracted COVID-19, even with all the best tracing in the world. However, economic protection is needed now for these vulnerable workers in the public-facing jobs. The legal changes in this bill would provide that essential protection for them and for the broader public using that same presumptive provision that already exists under this act—that, indeed, exists for firefighters, another Greens initiative that found support from all in this parliament, I would not say in good time, but in time.

We also recognise that there are workers out there who have already found themselves in this situation, so we have made the commencement of this act retrospective to ensure that they are also able to access that appropriate compensation.

The industries covered in this bill include hospitality, health care, disability care, aged care, child care, education (including preschool, school and tertiary education), provision of refuges, halfway houses or homeless shelters, retail, passenger transport services, freight  transport services, library services and, of course, the obvious, emergency services, including the SAMFS, the SACFS and the South Australian State Emergency Service.

The proposed legislation also applies to members of the police force, those employed by a court or a tribunal or who are employed in the correctional institutions that currently could indeed create quite significant issues for COVID-19 to spread, particularly where their work requires face-to-face interaction with the public.

Under this bill, workers will be able to receive the standard rate of workers compensation under the act, and payments will continue until 21 days after a worker has been cleared of the disease or they have returned to work. Finally, this legislation also considers that worst-case scenario where a worker dies having contracted COVID-19 in the course of their employment. That presumptive protection and that ease of accessing their entitlements will then come into play, should this bill pass, and will ensure that any dependants of that worker will be eligible to receive those death benefits. With those words, I commend the bill to the chamber. 

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. J.E. Hanson.